Archive for the ‘Virginia Woolf’ Category

In the works of Virginia Woolf, puddles often represent a metaphorical chasm between significance and anonymity, solidity and vagueness, reality and illusion.  Frequently her protagonists, upon confronting a puddle, find themselves unable to cross, thereby remaining – like Woolf – locked in the debilitating delusions of their mind.

On this day in 1941, the tormented Woolf succumbed to her manic depression, filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones, and walked into the River Ouse and drowned.  As a tribute, some of Woolf’s literary puddles are presented here.


Some cleavage of the dark there must have been, some channel in the depths of obscurity through which light enough issued […].  The mystic, the visionary, walking the beach on a fine night, stirring a puddle, looking at a stone, asking themselves “What am I,” “What is this?” […]. 

~ To the Lighthouse (1927)


“There is the puddle,” said Rhoda, “and I cannot cross it.  I hear the rush of the great grindstone within an inch of my head.  Its wind roars in my face.  All palpable forms of life have failed me.  Unless I can stretch and touch something hard, I shall be blown down the eternal corridors for ever.”

~ The Waves (1931)


There was the moment of the puddle in the path; when for no reason I could discover, everything suddenly became unreal; I was suspended; I could not step across the puddle; I tried to touch something . . . the whole world became unreal.

~ “A Sketch of the Past” (1939)


I wished to add some remarks to this, on the mystical side of this solitude; how it is not oneself but something in the universe that one’s left with.  It is this that is frightening [and] exciting in the midst of my profound gloom, depression, boredom, whatever it is…. Life is, soberly [and] accurately, the oddest affair; has in it the essence of reality.  I used to feel this as a child – couldn’t step across a puddle once I remember, for thinking, how strange – what am I?

    ~ Diary 3, as quoted in The Flight of the Mind: Virginia Woolf’s Art and Manic-Depressive Illness by Thomas C. Caramagno


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It evaded her now when she thought of her picture. Phrases came. Visions came. Beautiful pictures. Beautiful phrases. But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything. Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly again before her easel. It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on.


~ To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf


Miklós Barabás, 1838

Miklós Barabás, 1838

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Since making my lifelong desire to write known within my immediate professional and social circle, I have come face to face with the quizzical expressions and misconceptions I encountered as a child who lived primarily in an imaginary world. While undoubtedly supportive and well-meaning, many friends are simply unable to conceal their lack of understanding for a “hobby” that requires solitude and a “sacrifice” of social interaction.  They applaud my weekend efforts at my computer (the abstruse Bakhtinian analyses of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the works of Virginia Woolf, and Gertrude Stein’s Ida notwithstanding), acknowledging the virtue of, say, an MFA thesis or a novel chapter, but can’t resist urging me to not forget to make time for myself and have fun now and then.

Don’t they see I’m having the time of my life?

I suppose I can appreciate their puzzlement.  In today’s hypersocial society, activities done alone are generally considered to be inferior to activities shared with others.  For every customarily unaccompanied occupation, a club or Meetup group is now available to take the ostensible sting of isolation out of it.  To opt deliberately for tedious exertions done in seclusion, such as reading novels and writing, in lieu of more interactive and invigorating pastimes often prompts questions of physical or mental well-being or, more awkwardly, elicits unwarranted sympathy.  Besides, creative writing is purportedly an enterprise of the right cerebral hemisphere, and I have a left-brain job.  Or so I thought.

Over time, as my colleagues began to learn what I was doing when I wasn’t analyzing financial statements and operating the real estate, a few divulged (with, I’m certain I detected, a measure of wistfulness) that they, too, had dabbled in the literary or visual arts in a prior life, revealing an unobtrusive community of hemispheric fissure straddlers – former and would-be authors, poets, painters, and other creative thinkers making their mark in a distinctly analytic arena.  Most of us probably still have the proof of a dormant poetic self – musty journals in boxes in the garage, old files of yellowed paper scraps and cocktail napkins on which bits of prose and poetry are scrawled, or references to particularly resonant passages in the margins of Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights.

Upon learning the secret identities of the accountant-sculptor, lawyer-philosopher, and engineer-memoirist, I was exhilarated by the proximity of this dichotomous kindred.  There was neither bemusement nor pity from these individuals; they understood the need to retreat to a quiet space to create, alone.  As we talked, I saw a light flicker in their eyes, a memory, perhaps, of what used to stir their soul before the freneticism of modern life anesthetized its Ache, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had returned home that night and started digging for the evidence of their own writer within.  At least, I imagine they did.  And if after reading this you go digging, too, write and let me know.


This column was first published in the Orange County Register.




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It evaded her now when she thought of her picture.  Phrases came.  Visions came.  Beautiful pictures.  Beautiful phrases.  But what she wished to get hold of was that very jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it has been made anything.  Get that and start afresh; get that and start afresh; she said desperately, pitching herself firmly again before her easel.  It was a miserable machine, an inefficient machine, she thought, the human apparatus for painting or for feeling; it always broke down at the critical moment; heroically, one must force it on. […] For there are moments when one can neither think nor feel.  And if one can neither think nor feel, she thought, where is one?


~ To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, born on this day in 1882


Georges Seurat, 1886

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While conducting research for a current essay project on identity and self-definition in the works of Virginia Woolf, I keep stumbling over the roots of Sylvia Plath’s trees – the shriveling figs and ancient yews, black pine and seeding winter trees, the diseased elm, and Polly’s dream tree, a “thicket of sticks” with a larkspur star.  With their multifurcating branches of options and opportunities, decisions and offshoots, Plath uses tree imagery to portray stages of self-consciousness, inner chaos, confusion, isolation, and desolation. 

Obviously, these are not the sort of cheerful trees under which you would spread a blanket and picnic.  However, they aptly convey the paradoxical desires and inner conflict Woolf’s characters (and many of us, I would venture) encounter on the journey to consciousness and self-definition. 

My favorite Woolf tree is the one Lily continually moves in her painting in To the Lighthouse.  Each time she is beset with self-doubt, bowing “like corn under a wind” (usually at the hand of Charles Tansley, who insists that women can neither write nor paint), she rights herself by shifting the tree in her painting: “She must make it once more.  There’s the sprig on the table-cloth; there’s my painting; I must move the tree to the middle; that matters – nothing else.” 

Lily’s spontaneous urge to make a shift in her drawing conveys her need to put order to the swirl of emotions and conflicting desires in her mind.  She begins to realize that her vision requires balance and fusion.  Plath’s trees, conversely, are tragic and dark, representative of the deepest recesses of our thoughts before reconciliation occurs.  And I keep tripping over them.


This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.

The trees of the mind are black.  The light is blue.

The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God,

Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.

Fumy, spiritous mists inhabit this place

Separated from my house by a row of headstones.

I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

~ from “The Moon and the Yew Tree” by Sylvia Plath


Reenadinna Yew Wood by Nigel Cox from geograph.org.uk, 2006, with permission by the Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike license 2.0




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It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by.  How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? for the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone.  That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop. ~ Vita Sackville-West, author known best for her love affair with Virginia Woolf

As a tribute to the publication anniversary of the first volume of The Essays of Virginia Woolf by Andrew McNeillie (Harvest, November 22, 1989), I have posted excerpts from my recent thesis on chaos theory and the butterfly effect in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.  (See Original Work or click on the new Angels and Butterflies page tab above.)

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For my first Major Authors essay of the semester, I’m attempting somewhat ambitiously to apply the butterfly effect of chaos theory to the love and life choices of Clarissa Dalloway and Lily Briscoe.  With the premise solid in my mind and supported amply by a week’s worth of fruitful research, the words should be flowing onto the page.  However, like Lily, I’m struggling a bit with my own creative commitment issues and where to begin…  

She took her hand and raised her brush.  For a moment it stayed trembling in a painful but exciting ecstasy in the air.  Where to begin? – that was the question at what point to make the first mark?  One line placed on the canvas committed her to innumerable risks, to frequent and irrevocable decisions.  All that in idea seemed simple became in practice immediately complex; as the waves shape themselves symmetrically from the cliff top, but to the swimmer among them are divided by deep gulfs, and foaming crests.  Still the risk must be run; the mark made.  

~ Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse 


The Pointe du Grouin, France, by Alan Hughes, October 2005

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